By Christopher Bjork
The aviation industry is about to make a sharp technological turn to an era of unmanned aircraft systems, and Grand Forks is in position to be a leader the transition, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
He toured UND’s aviation facility at the Grand Forks airport Thursday.
“We are seeing now a transition that’s as big as the transition the Wright Brothers saw at Kitty Hawk,” he. “It seems to me the University of North Dakota is ahead of the curve.”
McCain, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, was the guest of Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who ushered him around UND’s facilities for UAS and manned aviation, showing off drone simulators, hangars and the resources Hoeven has said will help make Grand Forks a UAS hub.
The two Republicans have built a relationship since Hoeven was elected to the Senate in 2010, traveling together to Afghanistan, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. Thursday’s visit was McCain’s second to the state with Hoeven this year.
On Thursday, Hoeven wanted to impress upon McCain, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, how ready Grand Forks was to take on any civilian or military UAS projects.
“He’s a key ally for us,” Hoeven said.
The senators were accompanied by Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., and leaders from UND, its aviation school, Grand Forks Air Force Base and other local groups.
Grand Forks County is waiting for an Air Force decision on a proposal to lease 200 acres at the air base for a campus for business and government entities involved in the UAS industry.
North Dakota is also waiting to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration on whether the state will be a test site for integration of unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
Both decisions are important to the state’s role in the growth of the UAS industry.
“This is one area everyone is recognizing as the future,” McCain said, and a part of the federal budget that will be shielded from cuts.
“There will be cuts in everything, but not in this,” he said.
While he does not have a say in the FAA decision, as an influential Senator on defense decisions, he said he would support North Dakota’s bid to be a large part of the military’s UAS operations.
McCain had a political stop in town as well, appearing at a rally for Berg with Hoeven at the Canad Inns following the tour at the airport.
Cheered on by a few hundred Berg supporters, McCain criticized President Barack Obama for his handling of health care legislation, federal spending and foreign relations, dwelling particularly on the administration’s response to attacks on the American Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11.
He urged voters to support Republican nominee Mitt Romney and help the GOP take control of the Senate.
“I’m going to give you the straightest of straight talk,” he said at the rally. “The Republicans cannot retake the majority in the Senate without electing Rick Berg.”
Berg is in a close race with former North Dakota Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, to replace Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is retiring.
Heitkamp’s campaign distributed a statement Thursday citing McCain’s opposition to the Farm Bill’s support programs for U.S. sugar production and saying Berg is “more interested in doing what his Washington leaders tell him than standing up for North Dakota.”
McCain also showed a lighter side during his visit, joking about his home state of Arizona’s record of producing unsuccessful presidential candidates, his number of crashes as a Navy pilot, his age, pointing to a restored classic aircraft and calling it “the first plane I flew in combat,” as well as Grand Forks’ weather.
“The Phoenix Chamber of Commerce asked me to announce that the temperature in Phoenix is 76 degrees,” he told the press conference at his tour.